Winter Olympics XXIV: A conversation with freeski judge Jason Arens

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Winter Olympics XXIV: A conversation with freeski judge Jason Arens

For over a decade, Jason Arens’ life has been consumed by skiing. From his competitive years in slopestyle, to judging the X Games, D

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For over a decade, Jason Arens’ life has been consumed by skiing. From his competitive years in slopestyle, to judging the X Games, Dew Tour and FIS events, to his current position as the man behind the brand of Surface Skis, Arens has continually found himself with a finger on the pulse. With the Olympic season upon us, I spoke to Jason about judging, the state of freestyle skiing and what the Olympics means to our sport.

Why did you become a freeski judge?

It felt like a cool way to contribute. To make sure that I was putting my money where my mouth is… If you’re not happy with the way something is moving forward and you’re not willing to actually step in and try to change it, then how is it going to turn out? Are you going to be proud of what it becomes? It’s interesting to be involved in this capacity [after competing].

What events have you judged? Will you judge the Olympics?

I have judged World Cups, Dew Tour, X Games, Euro X Games; the only thing I haven’t judged is the Olympics. I won’t be judging this one… I’ll just be the “trick caller.” 

What’s a trick caller?

Traditionally within the judges’ booth there is one person vocally announcing (to the judges) what tricks are happening while [the judges] are taking notes. That’s so everybody has the same accurate record of what’s happening on-course as it’s happening in real-time. 

When you first heard that slope and halfpipe were going to be in the Olympics, what did you think that meant for skiing at the time? What does it mean for skiing now?

At first, it was really interesting to have freestyle skiing in the Olympics because anyone who had been participating in the sport prior to the Olympics was participating in a sport where there was no Olympic [international] outcome. Instead, we had the X Games, Dew Tour, Dumont Cup, The North American Open that Jon [Olsson] and Simon [Dumont] put on, North Face Park and Pipe Open, etc. X Games and Dew Tour turned into, what I felt, were the highest stage of the sport. So when the Olympics and all the World Cups started, it was something that I wasn’t necessarily sold on. At this point in time, I see it as the biggest opportunity for the world to see our sport. A lot of people watch X Games, a lot of people watch Dew Tour; but the amount of people that watch and pay attention to the Olympics, and the way the countries participate in watching sports like that, it’s huge in terms of participation and the future of the sport. 

Has it mostly been positive?

Positives and negatives, obviously. We’ve lost a lot of the independent contests over the years because of the FIS dominance of the contest circuit, but all things change as time goes on, and I’m hopeful that we can get the independent contests back. It has definitely changed the contest environment and made everything more nation-heavy: Everyone travels to events with their country-mates, not necessarily their friends or their other sponsor teammates, as it might have been back in the day. But any sport, when changing or growing, can have those big alterations that shift the landscape. 

Are there differences being a judge for the X Games and the Olympics?

Fundamentally, no. It is still being judged on the same thing and, from the athlete’s perspective, they expect to be judged on the same things from contest-to-contest. However, X Games is a little bit different in that you’re looking at the overall impression of all of their runs combined, the athlete’s overall performance. [The Olympics] is a different vibe and I feel like the World Cups have introduced a level of seriousness to the scene. Having coaches as involved as they are is an interesting change in the athlete arena, too.

Today, slopestyle courses incorporate shark fins and other halfpipe-style transition features. What are your thoughts on this new wave of slopestyle courses?

I think it’s cool. Way back in the day, skiers got used to the idea of being able to go straight down the run and hit straightforward jumps or rails. Transition features never really found their place, and I wasn’t sure why; these features should be incorporated more often. From what I can tell, this Olympic course will be really progressive. 

What kinds of tricks will it take for athletes to place well in the Games?

This year is going to be crazy. With what we’ve been seeing so far in contests, it’s going to be 1800s, 1980s, really, really high-level spins [that score the best]. Double corks, triple corks, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if we started to see people getting more comfortable with trying quad corks; I know that there are a couple of competitors working on that. 

In Big Air, some athletes are working on bring-backs and opposite rotations; spinning a 360 in one direction and a 360 back in the other direction. By the time February hits, I would not be surprised if we saw a 2160. Luckily, with this sport, people are also still figuring out ways to incorporate freeskiing elements and it’s going to be interesting to see the different paths to progression that people take to try to achieve Olympic Gold. That’s the other thing the Olympics have done… it’s made this mythical thing achievable: The Olympic Gold. 

In particular, which skiers or events are you most looking forward to calling?

All of these athletes are putting so much effort into [training and competing] and have so much riding on it. It’s their lives. It’s something we get to watch, but this is their everyday pursuit of trying to win the fucking Olympics. The storylines are developing… especially the women’s Slopestyle and Big Air scene. It’s going to go off this year—those girls are all approaching an insane level and, if all of them stay healthy, that’s going to be the event to watch. 

Any final thoughts?

My main thing right now is realizing that ski judging is something I enjoy, and I value what I’ve been able to gain from it. But it is also something that I feel needs to be left to the people that are paying the most attention to the sport. One day down the line there will be somebody that feels the way that I did about wanting new judges that were a better representation of skiing. I would like to encourage anybody that is potentially interested in judging to do a clinic and to reach out to me directly.

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